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Ohio University professors contribute to climate adaptation workshop, Tanzania research

Austin Stahl December 4, 2012

Wangui Dec 2012

Climate change typically isn’t mentioned in the same sentence as security, but experts and policy makers are beginning to make the connection more frequently. Four Ohio University professors are contributing to this growing body of research and the efforts to share that knowledge for the benefit of communities around the world.

Drs. Geoff Dabelko, Tom Smucker, Edna Wangui and Gaurav Sinha are involved in global efforts to help communities and nations adapt to climate change, which is already impacting many areas including agriculture, precipitation and weather patterns, and access to crucial resources like water. Dabelko is the director of the environmental studies program and Smucker, Wangui and Sinha are all professors in the geography department.

Earlier this November, Dabelko and Wangui presented at a conference hosted by the Wilson Center in Washington D.C. called “Climate Change Adaptation and Peacebuilding in Africa: An Adaptation Partnership Workshop Series.” Dabelko, who has previously given talks about climate adaptation and peace building, spoke about the connections between climate change and conflict, while Wangui led a discussion about the opportunities for peace building between governments, communities, nongovernment and international organizations. The workshop, sponsored by the Wilson Center and the Institute for Security Studies with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. Department of State, focused on finding productive ways to best facilitate these relationships.

“In general, you have researchers working on climate change adaptation, and policy makers trying to write national policies that can best address adaptation to climate change,” Wangui said in a recent interview.  “Simultaneously, you have a different set of people dealing with conflict and security – a lot of the time these people aren’t talking to each other.  There needs to be institutions that are working on these issues together at the ground level.  How to operationalize that remains to be seen, but the workshop is a step in the right direction”

Climate change can contribute to conflicts arising from resource availability, especially in developing countries that will be most affected by extreme weather events. For example, drought in Africa can lead to increased water scarcity, and glacial melt in the Andes could bring shortages of water to an area where it was once plentiful. A growing body of evidence is finding extreme weather events like drought may worsen from the effects of climate change, causing greater concern.

Wangui, who has extensive knowledge on the effects of climate change in Africa, is also working with Smucker and Sinha on an initiative called the “Local Knowledge & Climate Change Adaptation Project” (LKCCAP), a collaboration between U.S. and Tanzanian researchers to understand local climate adaptation in northern Tanzania. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the interdisciplinary research team brings together experts from the fields of development geography, disaster risk management, economics, ecology, cultural linguistics, geographic information science and climatology. Five Ohio University graduate students and two undergraduates from the geography department have also been involved in the project.

Wangui said they have witnessed the link between climate and conflict in their research in Tanzania.

“In Tanzania we have come into contact with conflict, not directly from climate change but from the policies that are supposed to address climate change,” she said. “In that discussion, if institutions that deal with climate adaptation and those that work on security communicated better they would probably be able to avoid such conflict.”

One example she cited was between pastoralists (who practice herding) and farmers. Farmers are being encouraged by new policies to use irrigation as a solution to increased droughts in the area to better adapt to this effect of climate change. Empty land is often viewed as “unused” and available for irrigated farmland. However, pastoralists use the land and the water for their animals, and therefore tension arises.

One of the group’s foci is researching how local Tanzanians are adapting to climate change and then communicating this to the regional and national government to help them make better policy decisions. This includes documenting what is working and what isn’t.

“We want to see how people are adapting, what challenges they face and what opportunities they take advantage of.  We don’t want to tell them what to do,” Wangui said. “Communicating local knowledge to the national level is very difficult. We want to communicate with government officials from the district and the region so governments can support what works and help local people overcome challenges to adaptation. The government is pushing national policies assuming they will work everywhere, but they’re not.”

To obtain this local knowledge and understand the role of local institutions in climate adaptation, having a constant presence from researchers and students in Tanzania is critical. Professors and students from Ohio University working on the project make the trip to the country whenever possible, typically over the summer. For those who don’t speak Swahili, there are plenty of translators helping out. But Wangui said it is a different kind of language barrier that they are trying to address.

“Climate change is a very academic term, they don’t discuss it that way,” Wangui said. “We wanted to see exactly how they talked about it. They don’t just see it as climate, it’s one of the many challenges facing their livelihoods.”

Update April 9, 2013: Click here for information from the Wilson Center regarding the release of the report from the workshop.